Linked below are some scans from the backup feature in Green Lantern #55. These pages perfectly define what I love about comic books.
Take the time to read that over. Then think about what had to happen to create this story.
The cat is known as Dex-Starr. He’s part of the Red Lantern Corps – a counterpart to the Green Lanterns who are consumed by rage rather than empowered by will. In recent comics, he’s running around killing people and breathing fiery blood. Did I mention that he’s a cat?
This story means that someone sitting in the DC Comics editorial offices said, “We need a Red Lantern from Earth. And it should be a homicidal house cat.”
And Geoff Johns, the writer of this issue, said, “Yeah. That’s a good idea.” And then he proceeded to write a story that was actually compelling. A story about an abused house cat that gains rage-fueled super powers.
Comic books are unbelievable in that regard. They’re not unbelievable in their audacity to print ridiculous concepts – they’re unbelievable in that they make those ridiculous concepts actually work. In almost any other medium (with the probable exception of Japanese anime), the suggestion of a super-powered housecat would be played for laughs at best. At worst, a writer would point out how obviously stupid the idea is. And yet above, in the space of a few pages, Geoff Johns and Shawn Davis turn that stupid idea into something that legitimately tugs at the heart strings.
This is not an unusual occurrence in comics or comic book-related media. One of the Flash’s long-standing enemies is Gorilla Grodd – a super-intelligent psychic gorilla. And when he got ported over to the Justice League Unlimited animated series, we got fine pieces of work like this:
Now, admittedly, that’s more of a shining moment for Lex Luthor. But this is also the culmination of an entire season’s worth of plots. They got an entire year of television out of the rivalry between Gorilla Grodd and Lex Luthor, culminating in the moment of awesome above. Again, we’ve got someone in the story department pitching something that sounds like it came out of a drugged out haze: “Let’s have the psychic gorilla lead a mutiny of supervillains against the bald guy who just turned the Legion of Doom’s base into a spaceship.” It sounds so stupid in concept, and yet it works so well in practice.
Superhero comics are a place where anything goes. Yes, a house cat can gain rage-fueled super powers. Yes, a psychic gorilla can be a legitimate threat to the world. Yes, one of the greatest threats to the universe can be a guy with a gigantic green cranium. And it will be awesome.
By far my favorite superhero of all time is the Hulk. A few years ago he went through an epic adventure called Planet Hulk where he was shot into space, sucked through a wormhole, and wound up fighting in a gladiatorial arena on an alien world. That story began with the author and artist going nuts and showing off the fun side of the Hulk smashing. Then the Hulk gained a home, became king of a realm, got a wife, and had a child. Then he lost it all, and it was one of the most truly tragic things in the character’s history. All of that sprang from someone at Marvel going, “We need to have the Hulk fight aliens with a battleaxe in a gladiatorial arena.”
This weird but effective stuff seems particularly common in DC and Marvel. That’s probably because those companies have shared universes that go all the way back to the Golden Age of comics, where the crazy stupid ideas were really crazy and stupid. But over the years, writers have learned to work with those bizarre concepts and look at them through the lens of serious storytelling.
Interestingly, I think a lot of the modern weirdness has the Comics Code Authority to thank. The Comics Code Authority was a set of strict moral guidelines that forbade violence, gore sexual innuendo, and other adult themes in comics. It also kept villains from ever winning a significant victory, forcing a lot of recycled plot lines. It nearly killed the comics industry. And yet it also brought renewed energy back to superhero comics – crime, horror, and suspense stories had to be shelved for the type of kid-friendly comics the CCA was looking for. As a result, we got the Silver Age of comics, which had a lot of weird and wacky stories because there really wasn’t room for the creators to tell a normal, cohesive story thanks to the massive amounts of censorship at work.
The CCA is long gone now, but the ideas it forced remain an integral part of the DC and Marvel universes. But with freedom to look at those ideas in full now, comics have become a place of unbound imagination. Thus, we get the tragic story of Dex-Starr, the red cat of rage, among other tales.
In some ways, comics have dropped off greatly in terms of storytelling over the last few years. But in other ways, they have improved by leaps and bounds over the 90s that demanded “gritty realism” (i.e., over-the-top amounts of sex and violence). By embracing the spirit of the Silver Age and then giving it a straight treatment, comic books are telling stories that just don’t get told anywhere else. Even better, there’s still room for grim and gritty stories, as the Punisher Max line over at Marvel aptly demonstrates. But sometimes you’ve just got to go nuts, and the ideas that seem stupidest on paper can turn into real gems with a little work.